Using the year 1896 to tie the themes of racism, deceit, and brutality across continents, first-time author Davis takes the reader from the failed Italian invasion of Ethiopia to post-Reconstruction conditions in America.
The novel begins and ends with Sara, an Ethiopian woman separated from her husband and children by some Sudanese slave traders during the Italian-Ethiopian conflict. She manages to escape and make her way home, saving a wounded Italian soldier in the process—a testament to her forgiveness as well as her grit. Davis describes the Italian invasion of Ethiopia from the invaders’ and defenders’ perspectives, focusing on the Italian leaders’ ineptitude and intrigues among the Ethiopians, culminating in the Italians’ stunning defeat at Adwa. Elsewhere, Davis chronicles the uprising of the Ndebele and Shona in southern Africa. Cecil Rhodes and British colonists triumph over them, forcing all into an unfavorable peace treaty and taking most of their land. In another section, Davis tells the story of Curtis, a black man from Alabama who migrates north to stay with his mother in New York. Disillusioned with city life and northern racism, he returns to the South, only to be lynched, mutilated, and burned after he’s wrongly accused of raping a white woman. While the plot is powerful, the writing can be uneven. The American section is artfully and subtly written, but the description of the Ethiopian invasion from the perspective of the Italian leaders uses stiff dialogue that serves too often as creaky exposition (“Ras Mikael joined forces with the emperor when the emperor reached Wello but that was expected since he is the emperor’s son-in-law. Other leaders in the south and the west have joined him at Lake Ashangi also”). But Davis delivers a gut-wrenching account of the hardships endured by Curtis and gives a convincing account of pervasive, irrational racism moving like a toxic cloud from one continent to another. “We are all niggers to them,” Zansi, an Ndebele warrior, explains to Rhodes’ envoy.
An affecting account of determined, courageous responses to global, persistent racism.